School choice in Texas a matter of civil liberties

Published October 17, 2013

In Texas, more than 2,000 students per week are dropping out of public schools — 3 million students during the last two decades. This level of failure has occurred year after year, creating millions of underachieving adults, and incarcerated criminals, as a direct result of a poor public school experience. No other issue better illustrates the dark side of Texas politics than this problem.

Consider that almost half of Texas African-American, Latino and low-income public school fourth-graders in Texas score “below basic” proficiency in reading. That is below the lowest level of achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Among the 5 million Texas public school students, one-third of African-American and Latino students drop out before completing high school. In major urban areas, it approaches one-half.

But year after year, the Texas Legislature, with the help of rural Republican lawmakers, exclusively pursues more money and more regulations of a bigger bureaucracy, rather than empowering parents with choices.

According to the Texas Comptroller, over the last decade, student enrollment has increased by 19.7 percent while total education spending has increased by 95.3 percent. It is well documented that there is little to no correlation between aggregate spending and student achievement.

Each legislative session, urban Democrats and Republicans team up to pass legislation that will provide more choice to parents but are thwarted by rural Republicans and Democrats. Parents have no professional lobby.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the rural Republican chair of the House Education Committee, was instrumental in killing most of the parent-empowering education reforms last session.

Among the least controversial education reforms are charter schools. With 100,000 Texas children on the waiting list for a slot in a charter school, Aycock would only allow 10 new charter schools per year for the entire state. Other states — such as California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and many others — have essentially no limits on charter schools.

School choice legislation — allowing students to escape bad schools and use the funds allocated to their education in a better private school — could not even get a hearing in Aycock’s committee. He also would not allow a vote in committee on a bill allowing “Home Rule” districts that would have freed good districts from regulations holding them back.

Democratic Sen. Royce West sponsored a bill to create “Achievement School Districts,” allowing the state to take over a district that was persistently low performing and turn it around, doing what was necessary to raise performance (including firing bad teachers). After five years, the state would return control of the school to the original school district after it was improved.

This bill seemed assured of passage after it passed the Senate 26-5. Even Sens. Wendy Davis(a Democrat running for governor) and Leticia Van de Putte (rumored to be running for lieutenant governor) voted “aye.”

Nevertheless, despite leadership from urban Democrat lawmakers with failing schools that needed it most, it is widely believed that Aycock and the speaker killed this bill, too — on the floor of the House when the speaker upheld a point of order on a typo in the bill.

A “Parent Trigger” bill also passed the Senate 26-5 with bipartisan support but died at the hands of Aycock.

This legislation would have given 50 percent of the parents of attending students the ability to vote for new school management if the school was low performing for three consecutive years.

Parents and students endure the same failure year after year. Attorney General Greg Abbotthas called school choice “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Indeed it is.